Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Throat Punch Dreams

Every now and again, images of defense-of-self flash through my mind. Usually, they are escape scenarios punctuated by me gaining the upper hand and subduing a faceless person out to do someone harm (and usually, that someone is me or a loved-one). Normal stuff for folks who study or teach martial arts or self-defense, I suppose. 

Lately, though, assailants in my day dreams aren’t so faceless. And they aren’t happening after random, surprise attacks from a bad person springing from the bushes. Lately, every attacker has identifiable features and each one looks a lot like folks I come in contact with on a regular, or at least know on some level. They are folks that are causing a lot of havoc and chaos in my world.


It’s truly funny how the mind works – because each scenario ends the same way: with my left hand wrapped firmly around their throat and my right hand cocked back, aimed at their nose or left eye. I never hit, but that the intent to neutralize them and stop their attack is on full-throttle.


Physical harm is not actually being done to me and mine, really - but my head is looking for ways to stop the crazy before it gets out of control, it seems. I am far from a violent person (save for class or the competition ring, the only fight I’ve ever had was in second grade and the only physical altercation as an adult occurred about 10 years ago [read about it here). My weapons outside of the ring have been words. As a writer, I’ve had ample opportunity to give a verbal beat-down or two (hundred). As a journalist, I’ve found the facts to let people draw their own conclusions about corruption, murder-suicides, and other wrongdoing. Words have always served me well. 


I think my fear is that although I know wrong is being done, there will never been an opportunity to voice the "You know, what you're doing is offed up, right?" to the offender and be heard. That’s why my mind is working through on-the-mat scenarios, trying to find some semblance of order in a “put up your dukes” way.

My actual physical default is not to raise my hands, but my dream self has other plans, it seems.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

In Defense of Those Who Can't Defend Themselves

In martial arts circles, we spend lots of time training to understand threats to our person. We work hard to prevent as much crazy as we can by being aware of our surroundings, avoiding situations that might lead to trouble and neutralizing confrontations via verbal or physical de-escalation to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We assume that the potential for violent confrontation will come from outside the home, but statistics constantly tell us that most attacks will come from someone we know - and maybe even someone we live with or near.

That is truest for children. But unlike adults, the choice to get to higher ground is not one they can ever really make.

According to the National Children's Alliance, almost 700,000 humans under the age of 18 are abused in the U.S each year. In 2018, there were about 678,000 unique incidents of abuse and neglect nationally, which represents about one percent of the population of American children across all social-economic and ethnic barriers. It's all an estimate that many consider low, in that these numbers rely on actual reported cases - and if rape statistics are any guideline, we know that not all cases are actually reported. (Read more stats from the organization here.) 

During my time as a case worker, most of the children and families I worked with struggled with issues most of us can't even imagine. Whether the parents MEANT to cause their children harm was never the issue, understand - as our goal was to make it stop. Sometimes that meant removing the children from the home. Sadly, there was never a straight path to that outcome at all - and it sometimes took many months to untangle it all. Bureaucratic red tape really is a thing, believe me. What that often looks like is "we need to exhaust all other options first" which of course kept the tape - and the crazy at home - flowing.

The assumption seems to be that a child is better off with his or her family, so placement of a child outside of his/her home is considered a last resort. But some guardians simply have substance-abuse/misuse, emotional/medical issues and/or a myriad of other personal or societal situations that make the home they head and the space they provide for a child an absolute minefield. How that can ever be considered "better" is truly beyond me.

Yes, leaving everything a child has ever known can be traumatic as hell - but imagine the trauma living with neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse can cause. We too often rationalize the signs in front of our faces and automatically default to the "he/she is better off with them than without them" setting on our moral compasses. We try too hard to save the family (read: the parents) from the trauma of dealing with child protection services because, you know, it could ruin their careers (insert eye-roll here).

And while we are doing all that to protect the reputations of the abusers, no one is protecting the children affected.

Abuse and neglect are never "It's simply not my business" situations. Ever. Think about it this way: Although an infant can't tell you what they're experiencing, a toddler, grade-schooler or teen many times won't or can't. The reasons why are varied and complicated - which makes it all the more important that we step up and get someone to ask the right questions, or ask them ourselves.

Afraid Uncle Ray-Ray might lose his job if you call the abuse hotline? The pastor's family might be disgraced if the state gets involved? The neighbors might lose their home? Why is any of that more important than the damage being done to the children under their roof?

While we should be treating such situations like an abandoned backpack in the airport, we get a little squeamish instead. We hesitate and hope, I guess, that someone else will handle it. That simply shouldn't be.

Like that unattended backpack, if you see something, say something. Let the investigators determine if there are problems that can only be addressed if the children are no longer living with their abusers. But that can't ever start if those investigators aren't aware of what might be going on - and awareness, as martial artists know, is the very first step of self-defense.

If you see something - or even if you think you do - call or text the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1.800.4.A.Child (1.800.422.4453). 

An abusers best friend is silence. We all owe it to children not to be quiet anymore.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

That's Not Suppose to Happen!

One of the advantages to living in a small town is you almost always run into someone you know wherever you go. Since most of us have to eat and pay bills, I run into folks I haven't seen in a minute the most in the grocery store and post office.

But last week in the gym, I ran into a woman that I use to train with at my first dojo. After we hugged and caught up a bit on what was happening with family and life, Ms. H. mentioned that she stopped training a while ago due to her work schedule. But now that she is retired and leaning toward coming back to the dojo, she's not sure she wants to train where we both use to.

She started training because she was experiencing some violence at home. Her hubby, she said, occasionally got physical with her and she wanted to be able to defend herself. She stepped into the dojo looking for some tools and strategies she could use to help her avoid the fray and de-escalate when necessary.

Then she told me about her very first day in class.

The second-highest ranking student in the dojo was a woman who was a fourth-kyu. When I first stepped onto the mat, she out-ranked me and would often turn up the aggression dial when we sparred. I remember my then-sensei telling us all that class/tournament sparring was really a game of tag. The point, he said, was to get in and get out as quickly and efficiently as possible with light touches being par for the course. I noticed the fourth-kyu wasn't doing that, but was never reminded that she should.

The day she and Ms. H. met in class, Sensei had them doing a partner line-sparing drill that was supposed to be light with minimal contact as they were not wearing gear. But when Ms. H. lined up with her fourth-kyu partner, she was rushed, held and swept to the ground where she hit her head hard and almost passed out.

After class, with a headache and a need to understand what had happened during the drill, Ms. H. asked Sensei if the sparring session was supposed to leave her dazed and holding an ice pack to her skull. He told her she would eventually learn to defend herself better so she could fight back and give as good as she got.

Yes, that was the explanation he left a brand-new student with an injured head with. And I wish I could say I was surprised at what he told her, but I'm not.

Whether or not he knew or understood her reason for stepping onto the mat is irrelevant. No new student should suffer an injury while training with an advanced student unless it was a fluke accident - as in "I turned around to wave to someone at the door and my hand hit a student who was just walking by" or "There was an earthquake and I pushed the student out of way of falling debris which caused her to bump her head." Seriously - there aren't many other circumstances at all that would justify a student who just walked into the dojo leaving hurt. Injuries like that in a learning environment simply should not happen.

Sensei M. use to remind us all the time that injuring the friends/ukes we trained with was not something that he tolerated. "Nobody gets hurt in my dojo, understand?" he'd say at the end of every warmup/before we began whatever we were going to be working on that class. Sure, there were boo-boos, but we all came to realize that although accidents happen, they should always be a class exception and not a rule.

I now tell my students the same. For my younger karateka, I remind them that it's not fun to hurt friends. For my older students, I simply acknowledge that our dojo is a place for all of us to learn, which we do as ukes and as nages. Controlling the mind so the body can follow is priority.

I give Ms. H. a lot of credit for even stepping foot in that dojo again. It took lots of courage to return and risk injury happening a second time. But she did and trained there for a few years more, eventually earning the rank of sixth-kyu before her work schedule shifted and Saturday morning classes were no longer an option.

Of course I invited her to my class. Things at home are better, she said, but she wouldn't mind coming back to the dojo. I'm kind of excited about the idea of seeing her in a few weeks.

And if she does happen by, I'll be sure to do what our first sensei didn't: Let her know that nobody really should get hurt in the dojo.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Listen, hear...

This has nothing much to do with martial arts, but I'm putting it in this space anyway. Bare with me, please.

Last summer, my Beloved and I were on our way to grab a bite at our local mall. At the entrance of the mall is a stoplight. As it was red and there was another car in front of us, I'm pretty sure he came to a complete stop before turning right onto the mall ramp entrance. Unfortunately, the police officer who pulled us over didn't think so.

Since this wasn't long after Sandra Bland's mysterious in-custody death, the journalist in me sat up and began to look for any strangeness in the interaction. But since it was also the first time I'd been in the car when my Beloved was pulled over, most of my attention was drawn to him - how he sat (nice and straight), where he kept his hands (in plain view on the steering wheel) and how he handed not only his license and registration over when asked but also his gun permit and military ID. He also calmly told the officer he had the gun he was licensed to carry in the vehicle.

When the officer finally let us be on our way with a warning to come to a complete stop next time, we sat there for a few minutes while he put everything back into his wallet and glove box. Still not quite over how calm he'd been during the stop, I asked him how he'd managed to remain so non-vexed.

"Do you know how many times I've given that exact speech this month?" he asked. I had actually had no idea the tall, dark-skinned fella with the loud, deep voice (that, in 18 years, I only ever heard him raise at track meets when he's screaming out encouragement to the athletes he coaches) got pulled over so often.

About two weeks ago, it happened to him again. He was leaving school during his prep period to run to the bank and got pulled over for not slowing down enough in a construction zone. He said the officer who pulled him over knew him ("Hey coach - is that you?" the officer said when he saddled up to his window) and let him off with a warning.

"But what if I had gotten a little loud or my license wasn't straight? It might have turned out very differently," he said.

He's probably right.

Tonight, a friend I work with called me about an hour after a phone conference we were supposed to have. He said he was unable to make it because his wife's car had broken down and while they waited in front of her office for the tow truck to arrive, the police tapped on their car window, asking for license and registration - responding to a report of "suspicious activity." While they were explaining their wait for their tow, the CEO of his wife's company came out of the building, got a ride across the parking lot to her vehicle and left, never even acknowledging them or the police. As the thought drifted through their minds that maybe she had been the person who made the "suspicious activity" report, the tow truck driver pulled up.

I wondered what might have happened if neither he or his wife remembered their wallets, if the tow truck driver had gotten lost or their "What's the problem, officer?" came out a bit harsher than intended. Not gonna lie - it made me a little nervous.

Well over 20 years ago, my then 30-something brother was enjoying a movie in a suburban Philadelphia theater. He called me fuming because he'd just been forcibly removed from the theater when one of the attendants said he "fit the description" of some person who'd apparently done something wrong. It was so long ago that the particulars are fuzzy, but I remember that he came over right away and asked for help drafting a letter to the police department that had handled the whole thing so terribly.

Each of these situations made/make me feel so powerless, but since none of them happened directly to me, I can only imagine what the heck my Beloved, my friend and his wife and my brother went through as it was happening to them.

Sure, police have tough gigs - I get that - but there is something so humiliating about the being accused of things you know you didn't do simply because you look a certain way or happen to be where you aren't expected to be. No law-abiding citizen should ever be put in the position of hoping the police believe their story when that "story" is the God's honest, plain, boring truth.

Driving to get take-out, waiting for a tow truck or watching a movie shouldn't really ever be humiliating experiences.

And remaining calm or simply complying with all requests slowly and deliberately should keep everyone out of harm's way, but they don't always. The tone of your voice shouldn't determine if you make it home or not, I don't think. But unfortunately, sometimes, it does.

After their respective incidents, my Beloved, my friend and his wife and my brother all wrote letters as a way to try and recap what happened or as a way to let somebody know that what was experienced wasn't kosher. I'm writing this now for the same reasons - but also because I'm upset and don't really have any other recourse. I'm not looking for excuses or tales about that one time you or someone you know were treated similarly and it wasn't racial profiling because you aren't a person of color. So if your inclination is to "ya, but..." a response - just. don't.

Words aren't written just so you can disagree or explain them away. Sometimes they're there so the person writing them feels heard.

Listen and hear - then empathize and understand. It may not ever be your reality, but that doesn't mean it's any less real.

It really is just as simple as that.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

One of these is not like the other...

As my solo karate teaching has been going on for about a year (Training Partner Ed and his family moved south last October), I'm noticing things that I never really noticed before.

For instance, whether teaching or studying the martial arts, I don't really remember comparing two karate-ka before - as in a "they are the same rank but they are very different" kind of way.

The reason I'm having to do that now is because another grading is coming up. And for the first time in a long time, I have two students going for the same new rank.

One of them is 12-year-old. He was away from the dojo for almost a year, then came back like a person possessed. His kihon, kata and kumite have all improved 10-fold. He actually came back to the dojo a better karate-ka than when he left.

The other is 10, and was away from the dojo for the summer. His basics and kata have stagnated although his kumite has improved a bit. He missed a few weeks since school started due to an injury, but his focus is good and he genuinely seems like he wants to be there.

Interestingly enough, they are fine-tuning the same kata together - going over stances, hand positions and the like - in preparation for the upcoming grading. Again, they are the same rank and have been training for roughly the same amount of time, but in everything from how they tie their belts to how they shift stances and where they place their feet, it's kinda evident that the younger student has fallen a bit behind his dojo brother.

They both will grade and probably earn their next rank, but I can already see the separation. And I do anticipate it being an issue as they continue to train through mudansha. My big fear is that I will lose my younger student if he gets frustrated by feelings of not being "as good as" his dojo mate and winds up discouraged. As often as it is said, it's usually very difficult for the younger lot to understand the idea of the individual nature of the each person's martial path.

See, when there were two of us instructing and issues like this came up, we often switched up primary teaching duties. For instance, when Training partner Ed had difficulties teaching his son on occasion (as lots of parent instructors often do) I'd take over the lesson and work with his son for a bit. If two students didn't gel or frustration was developing, we usually staved it away by having Ed work with one student while I worked with the other. Saved everyone lots of frustration and kept the desire to learn high.

Now that it's just me and I don't have anyone to trade instruction duties with, I miss those days a lot.

What do other instructors do when they have two students who could and probably should be working at the same level but aren't? Any tips and techniques you'd like to share?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Back in the Goju Saddle

After way too long a hiatus, we're finally back to regular karate classes. Hooray!

The break was long - too long, actually - mostly because it proved a bit more difficult than originally thought to secure a new location that was easy for students to get to and that wouldn't cost them or us an arm and a leg.

We found it - via a local church - but lots of stuff happened in the interim, including Training Partner Ed and his family moving to South Carolina in October.

Training Partner Ed's "Farewell Workout"

Posing with the U-Haul truck just before the family pulled out of their driveway for the last time.

The move happened Columbus Day weekend. By the end of October, the new space had been approved and were able to get the new dojo up and running. It was only one day a week instead of three (as I am the only one teaching and have Squirrel's tuition to pay --> I must work), but it was a place to train again.

Because of the church programs in place, Friday night has become our regular time to gi up and play. Some of my students have sports team practice or work commitments and are unable to make it, but we gained some new students and now start the class begins with a belt-tying tutorial before we fall in.

Our youngest student, Allyanna, is 5

Kata with Jovanni and Tyrone
Nia - mid-kata


The first class in late October

Nate's new belt (Yes, I stole it from his IG feed)
As this past Christmas and New Year's Day both fell on Fridays, the dojo was closed for two weeks. When our bare feet hit the mat in January, I ran a few of my senior students through some kihon and kata. They didn't know it, but it was a grading. They did very well and we now have three new third kyus in the building, including a dad who first entered the dojo when he'd bring his son to class. After sitting and watching for about six months, he kicked off his shoes and joined in. His son stopped training, but he didn't. He's worked really hard over the last year, including solo training at a local gym with Ed and me every Friday morning through the dojo hiatus. 

It's been a year of unexpected twists and turns, but we're still moving forward. Isn't that what the martial journey is all about?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Choosing Martial Arts for your Kids : A Primer for Parents

As summer dwindles to a close, many parents are considering just what after-school and extra-curricular activities their school-aged children should participate in this school year. Physical activities - like karate and organized team sports - are often at the top of many "Let's get Johnny and Suzy involved in something" lists, which can be a very good thing, indeed. But because it's important to know what you are getting yourself and your young ones into, there are a few important things you really need to consider before you go out and buy a gi and sparring equipment including:

1. Check out the school alone before you bring your child in for a look. Just like any facility your child will be spending time in, make sure it is clean, safe and generally comfortable. Walk through the changing area/dressing rooms and actually use the bathrooms. Look around/listen to how instructors are speaking to the students and each other. Are the classes chaotic and unorganized or structured and informational? Are students encouraged to ask questions and participate by helping demonstrate techniques or expected to just do without explanation? Would you feel comfortable leaving your child there without you? If something feels off about the environment or the instruction, trust your gut. If you're fine with what you experience, stop in next time with your child.

2. Not every 10-year old is/Not every five year old isn't ready for a structured, physically challenging activity. Since you know your child better than her/his instructor does, you're probably the best judge of whether or not Junior is capable of following instructions in a group setting, sitting still/waiting his turn effectively and functioning without your hand-holding for a 30- to 45-minute class. If you aren't sure about your grade-schooler or if the instructor needs convincing about your pre-schooler, ask if your child can take a trial class to see if s/he can make it through comfortably. Many schools offer a week of or at least a few classes for free to help you figure out if the class works for your child and your family's lifestyle. Don't buy any equipment or sign any long-term agreements until you're sure the school/program is a good fit.

3. Learning any martial art is designed to take a long time. Really, the martial path is all about the journey, not the destination - and a fast trip is often not the generally recommended road. Any school or program promising to make your child into a black belt in X number of years is one you should probably run from as quickly as humanly possible. Also, let your child know that the martial path is all about delayed gratification and the Puritan Work Ethic. The hard work put in will certainly pay off, but that payoff isn't always immediately apparent - which is why is is so important that your child enjoy the time they spend in class. Children can get frustrated or "Are we there yet?" bored easily if they don't know what to expect.

4. Make sure your child is dressed appropriately for class. Whether or not instruction happens in a traditional setting with uniforms and belts/sashes or in a church basement with t-shirts and sweatpants, your child should have what s/he needs to actively participate. Watches, rings, metal headbands, jeans, pencil skirts, big belt buckles and the like can restrict movement or make for safety hazards on the mat. Also, don't rely on the instructor to keep tabs on necklaces and bracelets during the class. The best rule of thumb is to not wear any accessory not used on the mat to the training hall in the first place. 

5. Be mindful of after-school programs that offer a martial arts component where everyone must participate. Again, if your child isn't really feeling martial arts, any session where they must participate will not be pleasant for them at all, which will make for a bad experience for them, their dojo/dojang mates and their instructor. You know that feeling you get before heading into a mandatory work-related meeting that you really don't want to go to in the first place? They'll feel the same way every time Karate Day approaches if they don't want to be there. If your child has tried the class a few times and it really isn't his/her thing, talk to the program director about finding an alternate activity.

6. This is your child's activity, not yours. Just because you always wanted to study martial arts doesn't mean your child does. Sure, the discipline and character-building that martial arts instruction provides is great, but it doesn't necessarily mean your child will be as anxious to learn to do new stuff like punch/kick things and scream like a banshee as you might have been. If Suzy shows a genuine interest in joining a class, great! But if she tells you that she's not sure once she gets there AND really seems out of sorts during class AND keeps expressing to you that she doesn't want to go back AND you are more enthusiastic about going than she is, it might be time for you to sign up for class and find another activity for her.

7. Remember: It's supposed to be fun. Martial arts instruction has some built-in stressors - like the pressure of learning forms, understanding bunkai, promotions and remembering dojo etiquette - but it still should be enjoyable to the folks participating, whether they are 5 or 55. Generally speaking, participating in class and other martial arts-related activities (tournaments, seminars and/or visiting other schools) should be something your child looks forward to. When it isn't a happy experience anymore - and not just because the expectations are higher or the curriculum challenges are getting tougher - it may be time to think about exploring new activities.

Not an exhaustive list by any means, but this is enough to get you started on deciding if martial arts is right for your child. If you have any questions or are a martial artist or parent who has tips for those trying to decide if martial arts instruction is right for their child, feel free to add them in the comment section below.